The Champions League last 16 rumbled on this week with the opening batch of second-leg matches. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s games in Europe’s premier club competition.
Inzaghi and Sanchez let Inter down
Alexis Sanchez’s red card spoiled what could’ve been a memorable night for Inter Milan. Lucky to escape with just a warning when he slid studs-first into Thiago Alcantara to end the first half, Sanchez was sent off for another overzealous tackle on Fabinho in the second. The red card – brandished minutes after Lautaro Martinez’s wonderful goal had offered Inter hope of an unlikely comeback – came at the worst possible time. Up a man for the remaining 25 minutes, Liverpool wrestled control of the tie and advanced 2-1 on aggregate.
Sanchez may have cost his team, but manager Simone Inzaghi allowed the situation to spiral out of control. By choosing to keep Sanchez on the pitch, Inzaghi overlooked his panicky play and the team’s lack of offensive production; Edin Dzeko, the club’s leading scorer with 16 goals in all competitions, remained on the bench. Joaquin Correa, a similar darting presence to Sanchez, could’ve offered the same speed and pressing ability, and with Inter needing goals, Dzeko, an expert in the air, could’ve offered them an additional outlet up top.
In the end, Inter finished with just six shots – only half of them on target – on a night they needed to score twice just to have a chance of reaching the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Liverpool hit the woodwork three times. It could’ve been so different for the reigning Serie A champions, who still won on the night but ultimately paid too little attention to detail to get past Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Mane slipping in big matches
Sadio Mane has four goals in his last eight appearances for Liverpool, which isn’t exactly a drought, but his production against top opponents belies his recent scoring record.
Mane struggled on the left of Liverpool’s front three Tuesday, with the majority of his touches coming well outside of the 18-yard box. Though his arching pass to Mohamed Salah in the 76th minute should’ve resulted in a goal, the Senegalese international still produced little substance in the most dangerous area of the pitch.
His performance echoed his relatively quiet outing in the first leg at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Mane missed a clear header before making way for Luis Diaz in the 59th minute of that game, and he could only watch on the sidelines as his teammates, playing with renewed spirit, scored twice to win 2-0.
A similar storyline played out in the League Cup final against Chelsea. Mane registered just two shots playing as a No. 9 – one woefully wide – before coming off again in the second half.
Mane’s struggles predate the Africa Cup of Nations in January: he was ineffectual in games against Leicester and AC Milan and went goalless from the end of November to the end of December.
With Diaz raring to go, Mane can ill afford to go missing down the stretch. Scoring against the likes of Leeds United and Norwich City isn’t enough anymore. Liverpool have the depth to cope – and perhaps even play better – with Mane out of the starting lineup.
Bayern’s brashness can’t last
Julian Nagelsmann did it again. Kingsley Coman, Leroy Sane, Thomas Muller, and Serge Gnabry buzzed behind Robert Lewandowski just as they had in the first leg, with merely a midfield duo and defensive trio for protection.
It was an approach that indicated Bayern Munich wanted to rain punches from the first whistle, leaving Red Bull Salzburg bloodied and dazed before they could pick at the same vulnerabilities they exposed in the 1-1 draw to open the doubleheader.
Nagelsmann’s options were somewhat limited. Midfielders Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso are injured, and the only senior attack-minded players on the bench were Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Marcel Sabitzer. But it still took extreme bravery for the head coach not to dilute his ambitious plan.
Bayern were given a scare before two minutes elapsed. Karim Adeyemi stole the ball from Jamal Musiala – still learning on the job in a deeper midfield role – and cut it back for Nicolas Capaldo, whose straightforward finish was thwarted by Coman’s heroic block.
That was it, though. The German champions were soon on their way to a 7-1 win. However, this wasn’t necessarily a sign of things to come: Salzburg’s individual errors and overall weakness certainly helped disguise an imbalanced and defensively susceptible lineup. Bayern can’t afford to be so cavalier when they face a European heavyweight in this competition.
A victorious Champions League run requires a little more caution.
Lewandowski’s unrivaled consistency
It wasn’t a vintage hat-trick, but Lewandowski continues to produce numbers and prove he’s one of the greatest strikers in the sport’s history.
Lewandowski won both of his penalties through his technical excellence and slippery movement. The Polish marksman tickled a tricky pass with the bottom of his left foot and tempted Maximilian Wober into a clumsy challenge for the first spot-kick. For the second penalty, Lewandowski called the same unfortunate defender into action when he stepped across Wober and spun near the edge of the box.
The goal to complete his treble needed bounces off his shins and the woodwork before he tapped in – but can that be deemed fortunate when he’s hounding defenders and so often in the right position? His finish took him to an incredible 42 strikes with little under three months of the season remaining. He’s now scored 40 or more goals in seven straight seasons.
And at 33, there’s little evidence he’s slowing down.